What happens if a coronavirus vaccine is never developed or doesn’t work?

What happens if a coronavirus vaccine is never developed or doesn't work
The world would have to embrace the virus if no vaccine is found. Source: Reuters
5 Min Read

Daily US Times: Many countries across the world are in lockdown and billions of people lose their livelihoods. Governments and public figures are teasing a breakthrough that would mark the end of this critical pandemic situation: a vaccine.

But there is another worst-case possibility: that no vaccine is ever developed.

In that case, the public’s hopes are repeatedly raised and then dashed, as various proposed solutions fall before the final hurdle.

Instead of getting rid of Covid-19, societies may learn to live with it. Cities around the world would slowly open and some freedom will be returned to the residents, but there will be some restrictions as well if experts’ recommendations are followed.

Physical tracing and testing will become part of our lives in the short term, but in many countries, an abrupt instruction to self-isolate could come at any time. Treatments may be developed — but the global death toll would continue to tick upwards and outbreaks of the disease could still occur each year.

It’s a path rarely publicly countenanced by politicians, who are speaking optimistically about human trials already underway to find a vaccine.

But the possibility is taken by many experts very seriously, as it happened before, several times.

Dr. David Nabarro, a professor of global health at Imperial College London, says: “There are some viruses that we still do not have vaccines against.”

”We can’t make an absolute assumption that a vaccine will appear at all, or if it does appear, whether it will pass all the tests of efficacy and safety”, he said.

Social distancing and lockdowns could be reintroduced until a vaccine is found. Source: Getty Images

“It’s absolutely essential that all societies everywhere get themselves into a position where they are able to defend against the coronavirus as a constant threat, and to be able to go about social life and economic activity with the virus in our midst,” says Nabarro, who also serves as a special envoy to the World Health Organization on Covid-19.

Most experts remain confident that a Covid-19 vaccine will be developed because unlike previous diseases like malaria and HIV, the coronavirus does not mutate rapidly.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases suggested it could happen in a year to 18 months. England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty also expressed hope for a vaccine to be developed while suggesting that a year may be too soon.

But even if a vaccine is developed, bringing it to fruition in any of those timeframes would be a feat never achieved before.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says “We’ve never accelerated a vaccine in a year to 18 months. We need plan A, and a plan B.”

When vaccine doesn’t work

In 1984, US announced that scientists had successfully identified the virus that later became known as HIV — and predicted that a preventative vaccine would be ready for testing in two years. But forty years and 32 million deaths later, the world is still waiting for an HIV vaccine.

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler announced that development. Instead of a breakthrough, his claim was followed by the loss of much of a generation of gay men and the painful shunning of their community in Western countries. For many years, a positive diagnosis was not only a death sentence; it ensured a person would spend their final months abandoned by their communities, while doctors debated in medical journals whether HIV patients were even worth saving.

US authorises Remdesivir for coronavirus treatment
An ampule of the drug remdesivir is pictured during a news conference at the University Hospital Eppendorf in Hamburg, Germany. The drugs being tested as a Covid-19 treatment. Source: Reuters

The search didn’t end in the 1980s. President Bill Clinton, in 1997, challenged the US to come up with a vaccine within a decade. Fourteen years ago, scientists said we were still about 10 years away.

Plan B

If the same thing happened to Covid-19, the world have to embrace the virus for many years to come. But the medical response to HIV/AIDS still provides a framework for living with a disease we can’t stamp out.

“In HIV, we’ve been able to make that a chronic disease with antivirals. We’ve done what we’ve always hoped to do with cancer,” says Paul Offit, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist who co-invented the rotavirus vaccine.

“It’s not the death sentence it was in the 1980s.”

The groundbreaking development of a daily preventative pill — pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP — has since led to hundreds of thousands of people at risk of contracting HIV being protected from the disease.

You may read: US authorises Remdesivir for coronavirus treatment